Swim effectively to conquer triathlon

September 13th 2018

By Matt Hill
Categories: Swim

Swim effectively to conquer triathlon

How well you swim plays a significant part in how well you race. Very rarely do you see someone that suffered in the swim perform well overall in a triathlon.

In the early days of triathlon, ex-swimmers performed extremely well, and often dominated, triathlons around the world; Dave Scott, Mark Allen, Robin Brew, the list goes on.

Being able to use their swim ability to lead from the front, not only put them into a race leading position but their swim effectiveness, or efficiency, meant they expended less energy in doing so.

This latter point, being effective, is a critical point for modern triathletes to be aware of. To win a triathlon it is essential that swim training forms a significant part of overall training.

Swim influence

The common swim training approach

Bearing the opening section in mind, that the more effective your swim, the more you save for the bike and run, why is the following approach taken?

Often, age group athletes view triathlon as three different sports (swim, bike and run) and look at the ratio of time spent in each discipline. Swimming, in terms of time and distance, appears to be the least significant part of a triathlon (1.7% in an Ironman). It is also often the least enjoyed discipline. A typical mindset of “I can use my great bike and run to make up for my poor swim” is often adopted.

Triathlon ratios

Unfortunately, this is the wrong approach. The swim is often so exhausting that no matter how good your bike and run, your ability to replicate this in a race will have been compromised!

Triathlon and swim science

Don’t just take our word for it, there are many studies showing the fact. This study1, that focussed on swim importance, shows that swim training and correct pacing of the swim in a race, results in a positive end (race) result. The practical side of the study showed that elite athletes can be up to 1min 45sec faster over a sprint distance race!

The overall conclusion: (elite) “triathletes must place equal importance on their swim training as that of both cycling and running.

Imagine if the elite can knock off 1min 45sec, who usually strive to, and are elated to, take mere seconds off each season. Well trained age group athletes are likely to see much more improvements!

The less energy is expended in the swim, the more is left to perform well on the bike and then the run.

The same study1 showed that racing at your pool swim time trial pace (often called critical swim speed, threshold pace, race pace) will hinder your ability to bike and run well. A more effective pace to swim is at 80% of your swim time trial pace to realise the ability to perform well on the bike and run.

Start changing your approach

Simply swimming more is a good start! But if you want to really benefit, you need to look at what the training will do for you and how you use it that counts. A recent blog from Brett Sutton explains the use of “drills” (not the kind usually thought of) and touches on the importance of doing what is needed for the race requirements.

There are two considerations when considering swim training:

  1. Don't kickWhat to do when training (just swimming, pulling, paddle strength work – NO kicking drills!); and
  2. Correct pacing (using your perceived effort to guide you – like it would have to in a race). There is a correlation between the swim pace adopted in a race and subsequent bike and run performance – and so overall race performance


First, start placing more importance on swim training and focus on correctly performing the right movements (NOT drills). Developing strength and muscular endurance so you can be more effective, effectively aiming to swim fast at low intensity.

Second, learning to pace by feel is part of this training and when transferred to the race situation, the race pace should NOT be your race pace!

What this means is that swimming must be a focus in your training programme so you are strong enough to sustain the movement at a high pace. And remember, this high pace is actually a moderate intensity!

How will you now approach training for an improved 2019 season?



1 Effect of swimming intensity on subsequent cycling and overall triathlon performance.
PD Peeling, DJ Bishop, GJ Landers, University of Western Australia